A Soul Conflicted

Bismihi Ta’ala

If one was to ask me what the atmosphere of Muharram was, I would – without hesitation – reply that it was one of grief, sorrow and a strange, unique energy that cannot be explained, only experienced.  Until last year, that is.  This year, from the sighting of the new moon that is its herald, this month of Husayn ibn Ali (a) has been something new, something other for me.

There is a prickle in my eye in the middle of the day, a scratching at the back of my throat while I put my baby to sleep for her nap, a great heaviness weighing down upon my shoulders when I walk with her on beautiful, warm, sunny afternoons.  All these are familiar to me, I have felt them, as has any mourner in these days; the grief for Karbala springs on us at random moments, taking us by surprise when it comes outside of the mourning sessions at the mosque.

I remember going to the mosque every night surrounded by an electric anticipation of what lay ahead.  The sermon itself would be different every year, but the eulogies, the lamentations, the traditions are not just familiar, but instinctive – a part of our very nature, something that calls to the deepest cores of our Selves, much as Imam Husayn (a) called out on the plains of Karbala for a helper.  We cannot do anything except respond to it as moths do to a flame.

I would prepare for each of these ten nights, meditating beforehand, listening to latmiyya, envisioning scenes, creating a ‘mood’ for myself so that I could immerse myself fully into the aza, the mourning.  I never realised how much of a luxury this was…

This year, I prepare for the nights by keeping track of what time my baby sleeps and when she naps. I try to make sure she has eaten enough because once we go to the mosque, all training and 18-month-old habits are left in the parking lot.  I pack a bag with ‘essentials’ including a dozen varieties of snacks – just in case – although I know most of the effort is wasted because she won’t eat (except the food the other children have brought), she insists on grabbing at random water bottles while I keep waving hers under her nose, she wants to play with baby-rattles that she won’t give a second glance to at home instead of the age-and-place appropriate books and quiet toys I have brought along…

For the first time since I can recall going for Muharram gatherings, I have heard probably one 60 second snippet of the 40 min lecture.  And if I expected my saving grace to be the ghamm, the eulogy at the end of the sermon that is its climax, then that has also been sabotaged.  From the moment the lights are dimmed and the first tears begin to flow, my baby pulls at my handkerchief, clings to my neck and loudly wails: “Mummy hurt. Mummy, no cry” and then proceeds to shed copious tears of her own.

I have no clue how to deal with this and can only pray she gets used to it in the next day or so.

I look at her, this first experience for her of a commemoration that will one day be as much a part of her being (I pray) as it is of mine and of all the Lovers of the Ahlul Bayt (as).  I wonder at the beauty of the journey from being a stranger to, then introduced, familiarised and finally falling in love with Husayn ibn Ali (a) and his companions.  A journey each of us has taken and yet most of us take for granted.  How did we reach where we are? By whose grace and with whose help?  Who do we owe infinite gratitude to?

It doesn’t end there however.

I also used to be passionate about needing to act, to know what is going on in the world so I could be duly incensed.  I would look at photos of victims of war and watch videos of destroyed regions to build up the fury required at such injustice to speak volubly on these issues.  I could handle the fuel I needed to fire up my passion.

These days, one only has to mention Syria or Quetta or Iraq or Palestine and I feel my stomach turn.  I can only glimpse at a photo of a blood-covered child on social media and never, ever, consider opening the articles for fear there will be more. A ‘more’ that I don’t think I can handle.  Forget the fuel; I no longer have a fire burning inside me.

I am all ashes and burning embers and inevitably I come to the same conclusion: only my Awaited Imam (atfs) can fix this, only he can take away their pain and mine in the process.  And yet I am too afraid to call on him to come soon because I know I am not ready for him, which leads me to wonder at my own selfishness even in times as dire as these.

All of this brings me right back to Karbala and I have to ask myself: if I can consider a delay in the coming of the Saviour because I haven’t made the effort to be ready for him, then really, can I lie to myself and say I would have been on the side of Imam Husayn (a) on Ashura without a doubt?  Would I even have come when he called like Hurr did or would I have been an Umar al-Saad – all talk and no action?

I have never felt so many different emotions at one time over one matter.  I am split between wanting to cry when I hear the heart-rending words of a particularly emotional marsiya or nawha and feeling a deep joy when I see my daughter raise her hands in matam for that same poem.  I am torn between revelling in the wondrous beauty of God in the amazing environment I am in – blue skies, green trees, open spaces, cool breezes –  and wondering at the beauty Zaynab bint Ali (a) saw amidst blood, pain, suffering and tears.

I see my daughter make a new connection, learn a new word, hold out her arms for a hug, laughing simply because I am there and even as I wrap my arms around her, I cannot help but think of all the children in the world – victims of war, famine, abuse and other twisted evils – whose instinct is also to reach out for a loving pair of arms, but who are alone, lost and confused and when they come to mind, I am reminded of the children of Karbala: starving, parched, witnesses to the massacre of their fathers and uncles, oppressed, beaten, and trampled beneath the camel hooves along the road to Kufa and Shaam.

Past, present and future all blend into one in these moments and I am overwhelmed by what to feel. Is my daughter any more precious or special than other children simply because she’s mine? We are blessed that God chose not to test us with disability, illness or circumstance – that is all.   Are the innocent, oppressed children in the world to be divided into those in the Middle East and those elsewhere?  Muslim and non-Muslim?  War victims or social abuse victims?  Does a child hurting in Syria deserve more sympathy than a child cowering in the corner of a small room somewhere in England, waiting to be sold off on the human-slave market?  Were the children in Karbala any less child-like because they came from a noble family?  We often make the mistake of thinking of Sakina bint Husayn (a) as an adult because of her speech and manners, but was she not still a 4 year old, with all the innocence, trust, faith and love that only a child of that age can possess?

When I put all this together, I feel that we deserve the Wrath of God upon us: not just those commit evil, but also those of us who are silent at it, who don’t do more – who don’t do all that is in our power – to save these children as if they were our own.

I can find no excuse – not one – for myself. That is why I am sitting here, writing this.  Because words don’t seem to be enough, but they are the only thing I have at this moment and if I was to die on this night, I can at least say, I made an attempt to begin a journey even if I haven’t figured out where I’m headed and what I want to achieve.

This Muharram, I may not be shrouded in a cloak of uninterrupted grief as I have been before, but I am stabbed at irregular intervals by sharp daggers that hook their barbed blades deep into my heart causing indescribable pain and if I pull them out by force, they leave behind ragged tears that leak out an intense, restless darkness whose source I cannot explain.

The traditions tell us that the tears we shed in Muharram for Husayn ibn Ali (a) act as a balm for the grieving heart of his mother, the Lady of Light, Fatimah al-Zahra (a).  Maybe if I am lucky, the unshed tears that my daughter prevents from escaping will be the same for my tattered soul.




The Way of The World

Bismihi Ta’ala

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the constant juxtaposition created by life and death.  We sometimes wonder at the fact that there are births and deaths taking place somewhere in the world every single second, but it only really hits home when you are part of both in your own experience.  Just a few days ago, a young man who was related to a good family friend passed away.  The night he was being buried, I was attending a pre-wedding ceremony in a house just across the street from the mosque.  We were putting final touches to decorations and welcoming guests even as the funeral procession was leaving.

It made me realise that the world truly is a big place, that often we are distanced from each other even when we are standing close together.  We feel emotions when we have a personal interest.  We celebrate when those we care about are happy and we mourn and feel grief at the pain of those we love.  The connection to ourselves is what strengthens our bonds, what ‘involves’ us.

Is that why we also disconnect when things move out of our personal space?  We join in the joy of marrying off the young people in our families, but after the ceremony, the couple is left to handle the rest of their relationship on their own – only they can deal with their daily challenges, because only they are so deeply invested in each other.  When someone dies, we mourn them for a while.  We miss their presence and remember them fondly, however, it is mostly in relation to how they spent their time in this world, how they spent their time with us.

We carry their past along with us into our future, forgetting that they have a current Present that they are living out as well.  A Present in which they may need our help and love more than they ever have.  Because we are not involved in that area of their Life, we have to be reminded to visit their graves or pray for them and many days pass when we forget they ever existed.

And just as we forget, we will be forgotten too.

This is the hardest reality to come to terms with, I believe.  Looking around, when you see the friends that you trust will be there for you through thick and thin, when you look at the man or woman you believe would lay down their life for you, when you see the family that promises that ‘blood will always be thicker than water’, it becomes hard to accept that if you were to be removed from their lives, they would remember you for but a few days before you became a fond memory of someone that once was, but is no longer relevant.

If the people who care the most about us can forget us, then how much did they ever remember us?  I’m not writing this to be cynical or critical of people’s emotions.  I’m sure we all feel sincerely, we love passionately, we care deeply…but we are human and it is part of the journey to understanding ourselves when we realise that our capacity for depth of emotion will always be a) imperfect and b) dependent on how deeply we have acknowledged our own Self.

As long as we live superficial lives on a material plane, it is inevitable that we will feel things at that same level.  This sometimes makes me sad.  Yes, our love will never be perfect, but surely, it can be a whole lot more than what it is?  If we were to become better at being Muslims – at being human – would we not become better at loving as well?

It is inevitable then as a Muslim, when I question myself about life and how it should be led that I consult the lives of those I believe were sent as examples of what we are expected to be.  When I search in history for how the Prophet (pbuh) loved or how the Imams (pbut) loved, I’m sometimes left confused.  Why is their love so different from mine?

When I was younger, I would wonder… why did the Prophet (pbuh) show so much affection for his daughter?  Why did Imam Husayn (pbuh) so openly express his feelings for his daughters, his sisters and his wives?  Over and over, as I heard the story of Kerbala every year, I would sit and wonder why the many levels of love woven within this saga were alien to me.  I couldn’t connect to the levels of emotion that needed to be involved for these events to unfold.  ‘How?’ was the prefix to many of of the questions that kept coming up.

I was brought up in a culture where showing open affection was not encouraged.  It was completely foreign to me that a father should stop in the middle of heading out to battle in order to hug his 4 year old daughter and indulge her in her last request.  In my understanding, children would have been kept away from the presence of adults in such tense times and not even told what was happening.

So for me, Kerbala has not just been a lesson in faith and loyalty, in sacrifice and dignity, in Truth and Justice – it has been a lesson in love and humanity as well.  Every time I think about how deeply those individuals loved each other, it makes me realise how much greater their love for God was that they were willing to give each other up for Him.  There was no resentment on the part of those left behind that they had to fend for themselves against men who had become beasts; there was only a sense of pride in having loved men who were capable of such utter and total submission.

For me, this is the best example of selfless love, an example of a Greater Love encompassing all other lesser loves.  When I think of it in this context, it makes sense that it should be so easy for them to show affection for each other.  When everything is reflected in the mirror of Ultimate Love, it does nothing but shine out visibly to all around.

As followers of the Tashayyu School of Belief, we claim on a daily basis to love the Prophet and His Holy Household (pbut), and we hope to gain their love as well by becoming the kind of people they would want to be associated with.  This would not  only be the greatest honour for us, but a saving grace.  Only those who know how to love truly would stand by us when we need them most.

Because there will inevitably come a time when we will be abandoned by all other people, and it will be the one and only circumstance in which we will need help the most.  God tells us that on “- the day when a man will evade his brother, his mother and his father, his spouse and his sons— (Qur’an, 80: 34-36).  Who will be left for us to rely on on that day then?  The day that you will see every suckling female will neglect what she suckled, and every pregnant female will deliver her burden…” (Qur’an, 22: 2)  Even mothers will abandon their infants… what kind of state will we be in during that time?  How desperate will we be for a consoling look or a comforting word?  And who else will be able to give those out except the Ahlul Bayt (pbut)?

When I started this post, I thought there would be a cynical grain running through this post.  I wanted to write about how it was the way of the world to forget and abandon; that we should never rely on it or expect anything from it more than a superficial level of loyalty or a false sense of commitment.  And I still believe this to some extent.

However, I also realise that the world and those who pass through it are not made of the same material.  We enter this world and leave it, much as we enter a room or an institution of education or a place of work.  We do not become the room or the place, but we are influenced by it and sometimes, we in turn influence it.  We can be completely immersed in our place of stay or totally excluded from it.  One thing is for sure, the more different we are from our surroundings, the more we stand out.

This is why the Prophet (pbuh) stood out, why each and every Imam stood out and why Kerbala stands out.  These people passed through the world, but did not take from it anything that would change their essence.  Instead, they left imprints, echoes that we can still hear down the centuries telling us clearly what is right from what is wrong.  People whose love was so strong, so all-encompassing that it continues to overcome the boundaries of Space and Time.

If only we could drown in that love, immerse ourselves so deeply in it that we would get carried along with its current to our final destination…



Saturated and Stagnant

Bismihi Ta’ala

I’m in a bit of a rut.  And the need to vent is extremely strong so please, feel free to skip this post if you have enough of your own ‘stuff’ to deal with.  I’m simply indulging myself and taking advantage of the fact that I have a place to come and rant.

Time is passing.  No, actually it’s slipping away. I can feel it sliding through my fingers, every second gone before I can even count it.  Of course, it’s been doing this since the day I was born, but I have never felt it as strongly as I do right now.   There are so many things I dreamt of doing, so many things I still want to do and yet, I have neither the will nor the energy to do them.

So I’m watching Time go past and I’m angry at myself for being such a passive observer.  I look back and wonder “What exactly have I achieved?”  Oh, I’ve *done* lots of things.  Tried my hand at this or that, organized an event here and there, written a few words…but so what?  Have I made a change or a difference?  Have I in any way done something that I can carry into the next Life?  Have I packed even bare essentials of any sort?

Reuben Blades has been quoted to have said: “I think we risk becoming the best informed society that has ever died of ignorance.”   I think I’m a prime candidate for such a society.  After all, I have all the information in the world.  There’s translations available today of books that my parents didn’t even know existed, Youtube videos of every lecture in every corner of the world for Muharram, Safar, Ramadhan and other random days, Facebook pages where you can interact with scholars and recitors, all kinds of organizations and courses available in English…what is lacking in terms of quantity.  As Muslims, we truly are the best informed ummah that has ever been.

Then why has there been no change in society for the better? Why are things getting worse and not better?  Why are evils unheard of attacking us within our own communities?  Why?

I’ve been told that I ask too many questions sometimes.  And I know I do, but that’s only because

a) I’m always thirsty for information and

b) I want to figure out what to do with that information.

Right now, I’m doing neither.  I’ve stalled on information seeking, because I sometimes feel saturated with facts and trivia and ‘data’ that is doing nothing inside of me except taking up brain-space.  I don’t know what to do with what I know, what would I possibly do with more of the same?  And that’s what’s making me angry as well.  Why don’t I know?  Me, an adult, someone who has been blessed with an opportunity to study both secular and Islam studies, why am I so stagnant?

Right now, every time I head in one direction, I seem to be hitting a brick wall.  If I seek to escape one routine, I simply end up in another.  There is no forward movement.  I am not travelling through Time, forging ahead and moulding the minutes into a shape that will encase my journey in history in some way.  Instead, I feel like I’m simply standing limp as Time passes over me, around me, through me…without so much as a hiccup.

There is a fear in my heart and soul that should the world end before I do or I before the world, that what lies ahead is not something I want to discover.

Remember me in your prayers as we go through the Days of Fatimiyyah please.